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Columna Musica


Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
3 Intermezzi op. 117 [15:38]
Klavierstücke op. 76 [27:34]
Fantasien op. 116 [27:12]
Miquel Farré (piano)
rec. April 2007, Estudi Albert Moraleda, Llerona
COLUMNA MUSICA 1CM0177 [67:41]
Experience Classicsonline

I have recently reviewed a great many discs of piano music by Debussy. The experience has led me to note that, while nobody seems to have the secret of all his pieces, by and large he seems to draw the best out of his interpreters. I think I can say that even the least of the discs I have listened to contained at least a few performances to rank with the best and to which I shall want to return. Brahms, by contrast, is a recalcitrant brute and it’s only too possible to approach him with the best of intentions and not really achieve anything at all.
The present isn’t really a bad disc, but the sum of its minute little mannerisms makes it a disc I shan’t bother to return to and can’t really recommend. Since Farré is, for better or for worse, consistent, I shall restrict my comments to the famous Intermezzo op. 117/1, This is a piece that most of my readers will have in their ears and in which they may find it easiest to follow me. You will kindly not suppose that, because it’s the first piece on the disc, I didn’t get any further, because I could very well compile a similar list of comments for every single piece here if I thought it useful, or readable.
At the beginning all seems well enough, the tempo and atmosphere close to the mark. But in the fourth phrase there are two slight hiccoughs which are no doubt meant to be expressive but just come across as slightly disruptive. For those who amuse themselves singing this melody to the words of “The First Nowell”, the hiccoughs are before “fields” and “lay”. There is another bigger example when the theme is taken up in the left hand. Whatever Farré intended, the effect is that the first note is separated from the rest. I noted several more cases in my score, and also a phrase where the highlighted note was not the most important one, suggesting that Farré’s tonal control is not absolute.
In the central section he begins well enough, though he does not differentiate between the phrases which have the typical Brahmsian “hairpin” crescendo-diminuendos and those that don’t. Also, his ever-so-slight hesitation before each phrase sounds rather automatic. Then in the fifth phrase he makes a big crescendo, where Brahms has a small one followed by a diminuendo, and the reminiscence of the lullaby theme is something like mezzo-forte instead of the marked pianissimo. Thereafter quite a lot of dynamics are altered. When the lullaby returns there are  the same little nudges as before. Since my Henle edition is said to be “urtext” I take it that the indication to hold the pedal through the last three chords is Brahms’s own. It certainly sounds better than the dry separation heard here.
I won’t make too much of the fact that, in the middle section, the left-hand rests are pedalled through since, in spite of this clear indication that the pedal is to be removed, I have never heard a pianist do this. And yet the music takes on a quite different dimension when this direction is observed, giving real sense to the “Più adagio” marking. It is true that Brahms was an adopted Viennese with the sound of schmaltz and waltzes in his ears, but he hailed from Hamburg and there is more of the bleak Baltic waves in his left-hand figures than many pianists find.
All this may sound awfully Beckmesserish. My points are small ones but they add up to give the playing a somewhat spasmodic, uncoordinated air. Turn to Wilhelm Kempff in the same piece and he is freer-spirited but also truer to the printed page. Maybe if there were no other recordings I would just lavish praise on the music and conclude that Farré is, after all, a reasonable guide. But you can do so much better. In some moods I find Katchen too free but on others his improvisatory freedom holds me spellbound. Kempff is more disciplined but no less poetic. And there is Gilels in op.116. No, I’m sorry, but in this sort of company the present disc is a non-starter.
Christopher Howell


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